Bee ‘n’ bee

Bee hotel

My first bee hotel was open for business two or three years before guests moved in.

More often than not, bee hotels end up as interesting but useless garden ornaments, so I was thrilled when I actually got some tenants. I didn’t see them move in, but I noticed late one summer that a few of the bamboo tubes were blocked up with browny-green material.

Mine had been a house-warming gift, but bee hotels can be bought for as little as £3 from big supermarkets, or can be easily made with some simple tools and materials.

The hotel had originally been hung on a fence post but had come adrift after a few years, so it was just sitting on the garden table when it became habitable. I waited avidly the following summer for my new residents (whatever they might be) to emerge. The first activity I saw was a number of what looked like small honey bees flying back and forth, entering the tubes and pulling and kicking out the brown debris from each one.

Within hours, accompanied by lots of buzzing, scratching and disputes, there were piles of dust and dried vegetation at the base of the hotel. Whether the original inhabitants had perished in situ or whether they’d exited discreetly without me noticing I don’t know, but it obviously hadn’t put these new tenants off. More and more of them started pitching up, hefting bee-sized green discs that turned out to be chunks of my rose bushes.

Leafcutter bee cutting a leaf

Leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis)

I consulted my insect books and discovered these were leafcutter bees, harmless solitary bees that play an important part in pollinating plants. Like all bees, they are under threat from habitat destruction, pesticides and a lack of suitable food.

It was fascinating to observe their activity and every day I’d sit and watch as more of the tubes were ‘plugged’ up with layers of the leaf discs. The bees line the tubes with leaf matter, stock the insulated capsule with nectar and pollen, and then lay an egg before sealing the chamber with layers of leafy material.

Eventually, only the very large or very small tubes remained vacant. There was even some gazumping; not happy with the remaining vacancies, some pushy latecomers actually went into inhabited chambers, threw out the contents, and installed their own offspring.

Hotel plan bee

My bee hotel has got more popular each year, and I expanded my property portfolio recently by buying bee hotel number two in an effort to support and encourage these short-lived but important pollinators. A taller, sleeker design, it had the essential quality that I knew the bees preferred; lots of medium sized tubes. It was instantly popular and towards the end of the summer was nearly half full (the older hotel was quickly filled). Disaster struck during the winter when I found the new hotel blown flat and full of rainwater, water-logging and rotting the contents of each capsule.

The original hotel, despite looking a bit shabby, was much more robust and withstood the wind and wet, and just this week the telltale sounds of very audible munching was emanating from a few of the tubes. I’ve yet to see anything emerging but I am now confident from previous years’ frantic activity that this old hotel is definitely a ‘des res’. Only time will tell whether the newly refurbished and fence-mounted ‘new build’ will follow suit and get its regular coterie of guests this season!

Tips for encouraging solitary bees
  • Location, location, location. Don’t give up if you don’t get visitors to your bee hotel straight away; try it in different locations around the garden, preferably near flowering shrubs or roses (as long as you don’t mind lacy leaves!).
  • Don’t use pesticides and chemical sprays in your garden.
  • Clear away spider webs from around the entrances to the bamboo tubes. Even tiny spiders can catch leafcutter bees in a well constructed web!
  • Waterproof the roof. I covered mine with roofing felt when it started looking a bit patchy but strong plastic will do.

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